Tag Archives: Matt Wingett

The Gramophone Player – an exercise in Magical Realism

Gramophone player

On Thursday 12th May I was invited by Maggie Bowers of the University of Portsmouth to join her, Belinda Mitchell and Peter Vincent-Jones to join in a seminar / workshop on Magical Realism at Wymering Manor, just north of Portsmouth. It was a fun evening in which we explored the idea of layers by using LiDAR images of the house taken by Belinda as a starting point to consider what layers could exist in a magical realist context…

The second part of the session was dedicated to getting people writing their own responses to the room through a short workshop we put together. We searched the building for something that fired off our imaginations that we could respond to in a quick ten minute writing session. Here’s what I came up with:

The Gramophone Player

How many voices has that trumpet on the gramphone player played over the years?

Starting in the early years, it played the charity recording Be British – a disc made to raise funds for families of the victims of the Titanic disaster. The performer’s disembodied voice staunchly recited a patriotic poem about the Anglo-Saxon race that stirred the blood of its listeners – delivering the necessary cold compress to the bruised national psyche.

Then there was the voice of Richard Tauber, singing Schumann’s Winterreise that moved listeners to tears. And Al Bowly sang of how Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall one wistful day in 1933 as the sunlight came in through an open door allowing summer to flood in.

The Gramophone Player at Wymering Manor.

These are just some of the voices the gramophone has spoken with over the years. But what voices has the horn – that giant ear-trumpet – listened to in that room?

If one could play those voices back, it would tell of the lives of the people here. Those in anguish at the declaration of the Great War and of World War 2. The delights of a wedding party on a bright spring day, perhaps? – A photograph still hangs in that room with a garden full of august guests from that very day.

Playing those and many other voices back, we hear in the shadows of the gramophone player’s metal trumpet live accounts of woe and heartbreak, of joy and excitement. We hear the sounds that tell us of England over a period of 80 years. Simple sounds, like the fire burning in the grate or the scolding of the kitchen skivvy by the housekeeper for those dropped plates, voices raised, subdued, loud and secret.

A wheel of voices, circling, spinning round, playing back the life that was here, and somehow as we hear them, making the world anew – a world created from moments of lives not seen, but once heard.

So we come to you – the most recent person this gramophone player has heard. Now, as you stand before it, be careful what you think of when you turn that handle. For time, too, is a circle spinning the universe – and if you don’t clear your mind, you can’t know where you may end up, or when you may arrive, as the voice-rich cogs and springs transport you to that newmade world.

A Pagan Story – an early hero myth – experimental novel

Mountain with rainbow for a pagan story

I have been working on a pagan story, an experimental novel, and reached a section that required a myth cycle. This is the starting point of that cycle. It just fell out of the fingers, and this is how it appears in first draft with minor corrections. I have no idea where it will take me…

How do they get here, these night visitors? I remember as if peering through a crack in a wall, seeing only a limited scene, how I asked my mother this once. As a woman and thus a keeper of the Old Lore, she told me the story with a smile on her face that told me she was telling me this for entertainment. But later when I asked about it, she was deadly serious that every word was true. She said:

Sjemantuk the brave one found the Old Gods were real by firing an arrow into the sky. This is how it happened.

Sjemantuk was a mighty warrior who had been told the Old Gods lived in the cloudland, upside down above the neathland. So, he decided to see if the sky was flat, as he had been told.

He tried once, making a mighty bow from the rib of a whale that he found sleeping in the earth waiting to wake up. But the arrow fell to earth, burying its stone tip deep in the ground and leaving a deep hole, and this is how the first sea was made. The whales sleeping in the ground awoke and swam in the waters that poured into the New Deep.

Sjemantuk made another bow from the trunk of the One Mighty Tree, Hjemfang. He flexed his muscles in a stupendous effort and after drawing this massive bow with his powerful grip, sent a great shaft with a brass tip into the sky. It glanced from the sky but did not stick, and fell to earth. Where it hit, water began to leak from the sky, and this is when the rains began. The bow also broke under the great strain, and the shattering wood of bow and arrow made all the forests in the world.

Still Sjemantuk wondered how he might best travel to the land of the sky.

One day, as he was walking, he caught the Sun and Rain in discussion over a mountain top. Watching closely, he saw their child, the Rainbow, had wandered away from them to the next mountain. Sjemantuk the hunter sneaked upon Lusjak Rainchild and tried to catch him-her. But Lusjak was too clever for him, and every time he pounced upon her, he-she was elsewhere. And so he chased him-her up the mountainside while she laughed at his bumbling efforts.

But then, high on the mountain, Sjemantuk found the magic stone that is both cold and clear, and trapped Lusjak within it as he-she taunted Sjemantuk. Now, when light shone through the magic stone, Lusjak appeared. Lusjak was frozen solid in the ice. Sjemantuk took hold of her-him and tied a string made from the hair of rainfall shedding on the mountain. In this way, he fashioned a bow that was both subtle and powerful. To this he added a lightning shaft made from the the old serpent Manark, and drawing Lusfang, the greatest bow the world has ever seen, he sent it flying to the sky. The arrow caught fast in the sky. And then Sjemantuk, having tied a rope to its tail, climbed upward to the sky.

When The Snow Witch Escaped Me

As a writer, I’m going through something of an adjustment at the moment. Something I never really factored into my experience as an author is happening to me.

To explain – some time ago I wrote a novel based in Portsmouth called The Snow Witch. I personally know it’s the best piece of fiction writing I’ve ever done. I wrote it in a particularly ethereal style, but made the characters and the town really gritty and real. Some I made deliberately enigmatic. This combination led to the book coming out in the genre of magical realism.

Magical realism is a fabulous genre. It mixes the allegorical, the real and the mystical into a quite addictive brew that plays with your sense of what is possible.

I knew I had done something right when people who read it approached me and told me how much they enjoyed it. Over and over again. I was selling my books off a market stall once, telling a prospective customer about it, when a previous buyer marched across to me having spotted me, their arm outstretched, stared at me intensely and pronounced: “That’s brilliant!” then marched off.

This is deeply gratifying.

But recently, an artist, Lucille Scott from Little Duck Forge approached me and asked me if she could run an art exhibition based on the book. This was again, deeply flattering. So, we are having an art exhibition in Cascades in autumn 2019 based on the book. 40 artists have signed up for it. It is quite extraordinary.

Then, another artist came to me, asking to make the book the centre of another arts project. This has become Cursed City – which tells another new story of Donitza Kravitch, the book’s eponymous witch – that takes place in Portsmouth, though social media, street art and live events.

Much of the original story takes place in The Model Village, Southsea. Last Thursday I went down there to meet up with local artist James Waterfield and Roy Hanney, who is the creator of this project. James is a great local artist, and he had been working on a secret project as part of Cursed City.

James Waterfield, AKA, Lawn of the Dead
James Waterfield, AKA, Lawn of the Dead

He had created two figurines to place in the Model Village both depicting characters from my book. I looked at them and had a moment of real dumbfoundedness. Basically, I was holding an action figure in my hand that was his conception of Donitza. Someone had made a whole new work of art based on my creation!

I’ve worked with artists before, but nothing – absolutely nothing like this has ever happened to me. It felt surreal. Like, a thing that I thought of had come to life, stepped into reality, independently of me. I didn’t know what to think.

The figurines of Donitza playing her violin and Reynold Lissitch pasting up street art are now safely installed in the village. And I feel like reality is shifting for me. That Donitza has escaped the pages of my book, and begun to take on a life of her own. And I am standing, watching her move and grow, and am bewildered.

Her: Opening section to a new novel by Matt Wingett


Am I actually glowing, or is that a trick of the light? Is this really love? Really? I mean, what do I actually know about it? She laughs gleefully. – Except – I’m in it!

Jo Parris stands ecstatic and naked before a mirror, a sensation rising in her core as if someone has reached down and benignly electrified her insides. Gorgeous-beautiful-ache happy-delirium bursting-joy-pain. This is it all right. The real thing.

The early summer air is hot around her. Even at this time of day, when the shadows are cast on the ground by the red light of dawn, she feels so hot her skin might catch fire. Glorious morning light.

"Her" - cover art

“I’m home,” she says in a whisper, stepping to her bedroom’s sash window, through whose mouth cooler morning air kisses her skin.

Sol, the old currant bun, Helios, Starfire, shaking out his bedhead, she thinks, as he bounces a shaft against a car window and lights her up: a young woman exultant in a town where she only ever expected to feel marooned. She revels in the spotlight, picked out by the sungod, radiance washing through her.

Love’s like catching fire. It burns. Weird.

A passing gull dims the dazzle a moment and she recollects the meeting scheduled for later that day. A cloud of dismay dims her mood.

What will Aunt G say?

Her question to herself refers to her secret (because, yes, I have a secret!, she tells herself excitedly). Yet, today, even for Aunt G and her disapproval she feels indulgent – as if she might forgive her former attempts to shape her life and lead it in the old woman’s preferred direction –

I don’t know why, Jo puzzles to herself. – All her weirdness… Over all these years… Fuck that! This time, it’s different. He’s my secret. No answers to prying questions, no breathless revelations about relationships.

Her gut agrees – a compass-needle-north feeling that points to her resolve –

I’ll handle her. She shakes off the thought and soaks up the view from her first floor flat: green of common, leaves of palms, elms neat-queued beside a path first laid for holidaymakers when seaside was a novelty of mass transportation. Distant: a low castle, built in the time of one Henry or other. Beyond, unseen from her position, a blue margin, whose saline presence fills her sinuses.

The sea, the sea. She half-consciously registers it. Magic pool of life. Home of possibilities. Bucking road to all compass points. All life comes through this town she hugs her arms to herself and lowers her giddy head, breathing it all in as if she wants to contain the world, right here, right now. Life is fucking ‘A’.

Movement behind her – snorted breath. Pirouetting with dizzy delight to the source of her reverie, she wonders, – is he waking up!?

Earlier, before slipping excitedly from her bed, she lay for half an hour, transfixed, torn between waking him and just watching. Beautiful man. My secret.

Thus her excited turn about her bedroom – a space once a Victorian family’s living room; now, where once resided the primmery of Imperial life, her hot lover snores abed. She draws him in through her eyes. Still asleep, she registers, hoping his dreams are hooking him to the surface – and if not, they’re of her.

She stretches. Arms sideways, bracing invisible pillars; arches her neck. Yawns.

With him she is all herself. An innocent in the forest who looks up, breathless at the world around her, and loves it for what it is, knowing she is loved in return.

Maybe not actually innocent, she thinks, because he has been the source of seriously good sex from day one, – And it only gets better – she tells herself as she feels the full stretch.

Satisfactorily yawned out, she drops her arms and relaxes her shoulders.

I hated it here, she tells herself in wonder. Till two weeks ago. Hated.

She rests her elbow on her navel and plants chin on palm to think a moment. Considers The Shrine on the chest of drawers – a little resident goddess standing immobile, watching them both.

“It all changed with You,” she whispers to Her, half-playfully reverent. The target of her gratitude is a carved figure in a homemade leaf bower. A doll of exotic origin. The one she calls Her.

Jo feels the same pull she felt the first day she found Her. Steps over to Her. Imagines She is sentient – somehow watching the scene in the room.

Now Jo lifts Her. Near-religious tenderness. Eyes Her wooden face – my breath is tremoring!? – As if magic will happen!? Of course it does not, though a little bit of Jo thinks it could.

She holds Her a while longer, replaces Her on the chest of drawers, then walks back to the bed and looks down on the man she is in love – or at least in lust – with.

Still asleep. Breathing his dreams through his mouth – can I get an idea of what they are? They smell sweet.

She scents his sweat, too, the tang of last night’s sex. Jumbled sensations flash through her mind – and she remembers: exhausted, falling into black sleep together, winding around each others’ dreams, smell of fellow human, warmth of skin. This morning, her brief and by now familiar flash of surprise and joy when waking to find – Yes! he is real.

She takes a breath as all these thoughts wash over her, reaching a conclusion as she stretches her arm to wake him –

Yes. I’m in love!

Follow the sun (and the lightning), Late May Bank Holiday 2018

“Go west, young man,” that piece of advice given to American pioneers who loaded up their wagons and headed into the vast expanses of the unexplored US has been my own mantra when it comes to the slightly less epic short holiday out of Portsmouth. 

What lies west, I considered, are all the good bits in easy driving distance. Dorset, Devon, Cornwall – and further up the Welsh Borders and Wales proper.

The best, however, cannot be said of the weather. When the Anglo-Saxons pushed in from the Continent and chased the Celts into the hills, I’ve often wondered whether it was a distaste for that bloody Bank Holiday weather that left them poking their camp fires at Brighton and Lyme Regis, so that by the time they’d bred a race hardy enough to handle the dispiriting Welsh and Cornish rain, all that was left to their descendants was to show off their resilience by inventing the drizzle-soaked seaside holiday.

Despite this, I had never really considered going east. I’ve made a few trips that way, but I have to admit that Brighton, with its huge hotels, infinite seafront and wrecked pier leaves me cold. Once, when going further east on business, I broke down (or more accurately my car did) in Rye, but I never saw the town, since I was struggling with driving home along a busy road sans clutch. Roundabouts were impressive.

The weather for this bank holiday, however, promised Armageddon, what with storms, thunder, lightning and possibly fireballs and / or falling fish all neatly scheduled by Notan (the ancient English God of Bank Holidays) for the entire west.

Time to follow the sun. Looking at the weather maps, sunshine was forecast for East Sussex and Kent, and so, with an acceptance that it might not be as fun as the wild west (covered wagons or no), we headed out into the eternal tailback at Chichester, which, black-hole-like, holds all south-east coast traffic circulation in its orbit, slows time, and in the crawl crushes you to a singularity, before you reappear on the other side.

We drove on, toward the rising sun (quite a bit after it had risen), past the great castle at Arundel and the dull mass of Brighton, stopping off for a bite at Lewes and then heading on again. 

East. East into the green countryside and the comfortable villages of East Sussex. Noticing a real difference in architecture – clapboard houses and flint cottages, so different from the whitewashed thatched confections of the west. And something else. Flags. Flags fluttering everywhere, in red, white and blue, as if the entire country was a confused and indignant elderly relative who kept ambiguously asking: “Do you know who I am?”

Stopping briefly at Hastings for a cuppa, we were struck by the extremes. Rows of caravans stood rotting on the seafront where the poor had taken up makeshift residence. Homeless people huddled in seafront shelters in St Leonard’s, where the paint from abandoned hotels peeled like tree bark. Yet, further up the road, expensive housing and smart bars thronged with visitors, overlooked the sea. 

The road diverted as we swung past the net shops – the black clapboard towers the fishermen used to store their gear. Soon we were out in the countryside again, passing attractive villages adorned with yet more flags. Union flags everywhere, run up poles, hanging from bunting in the streets. I felt a sense of unease at the instinct that leads people to want to hoist a flag of any colour, and to overlook all the terrible things done under its shadow.

We passed through bright country roads, through Winchelsea looking super picturesque, down past the low stone structure of Winchelsea Castle, where cows grazed in buttercup fields, and onwards to Rye. 

I was curious about this place, having seen on the BBC’s Mapp and Lucia (a series in which two rival middle class ladies – one, a fierce Little Englander furious at having her world dislocated by the other, a sophisticated woman of foreign-sounding extraction, fought battles for influence in the social milieu of an English idyll), and we climbed up to find an ancient town atop a hill. 

It was beautiful, full of half-timber mediaeval houses, with a church surrounded by nestling cottages on cobbled streets. It seemed like a little slice of historic perfection, as if someone had mocked up the quintessential English town, with bar-gates, and ruins, and pubs and shops. Walking the streets, I got a sense of the closeness and tight scale of English village life, and marvelled at the melted houses where the beams had bowed under the weight of centuries. I realised then that I knew nothing about this part of England.

That night we stayed at The Bell at Iden, just outside Rye. We pulled up in the camper and were immediately greeted by a super-friendly barmaid who welcomed us as we walked in and who told me it was no bother to park in the car park and stay overnight. Cosy. The place was cosy and friendly, and I felt surprised at the chattiness of the locals. Portsmouth, after all, can be famously terse.

So the weekend began with a warm welcome both meteorologially and figuratively. The following day, we drove out past Camber Sands on a military road, past a firing range and army training ground where mocked-up villages await trainees in urban warfare to do our flag’s killing work, and onward past the towering metal box that is Dungeness nuclear power station, which sits on the west side of the nature reserve.

There, away from the great green expanse of the countryside, we arrived at what in urban myth is known as the UK’s only desert due to its low rainfall (a story denied by the Met Office) and gazed over the great shingle headland, dotted with makeshift huts where people live and work in sparsely dotted homes, some of which were made from old railway carriages. The feeling was like a Native American reservation. We almost expected to see tumbleweed blow down the road. To add to the effect of the Wild West was a steam train, though the Old Lighthouse (next to the new one), and the fact that some of the huts contained art studios, and were overlooked by a gigantic nuclear power station somewhat lessened the impression – as did the fact that the steam train was narrow gauge and we were taller than it. 

It did, however, add to the sense of an alien landscape, unmade and ill-formed, and both of us loved its eery otherworldliness.

Onward again, to Dymchurch where a classic British seaside town crammed along the coast road, and stubborn donkeys allowing small children to sit on them while they were dragged across the sandy beach made me feel like I had suddenly gone back to the 1950s.

Then out into bright and massive countryside, full of greenery, through yet more flag-fluttering clapboard houses in villages bearing Anglo-Saxon names like Lympne, Bilsington, Hamstreet and Tenterden, with each hill we climbed opening up massive vistas and views across yet more startlingly beautiful countryside. 

Finally, we arrived at Bodiam, and explored the castle. It was great. A proper castle, with a moat; the sort that schoolboys might have consulted Disney and fantasy writers to make. It was built in yellow sandstone in the 14th Century by contractors working for Sir Edward Dallingridge. I’m precise about this because although the National Trust tells us Sir Edward “built it”, Dallingridge himself was far too busy terrorising peasants, and generally slaughtering and murdering the innocent as part of the Hundred Years War, to do anything so useful as lifting a trowel. “On the backs of the workers,” etc.

The story of Dallingridge seizing his opportunity when King Edward III decided on a whim that, actually, he owned France and declared war on his neighbour, is a useful one as a clue to the whole of human history. 

Like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage, mediaeval businesspeople also saw disruption as an opportunity, and so Dallingridge went out in a gang run by Sir Robert Knolles, a man so cruel and ruthless, the National Trust film informed us with what seemed like misplaced pride, that French people threw themselves in the river at the sound of his name. Ha! That showed ’em. Damn Frenchies, I can imagine one of the flag-flyers saying, not realising he probably had more in common with the poor French peasants than the psychopath who was murdering them. But there it is, when we imagine history, we are selective about those with whom we identify. That is the problem of history in a nutshell.

In the same film, we were informed that, like most of his contemporaries, Dallingridge was extremely concerned about the afterlife. Which, considering all that he’d got up to in this one, will come as no surprise. This may also explain why Jacob Rees-Mogg is a staunch Catholic. Thankfully, Dallingridge died quite soon after going back to the wars, and certainly didn’t make the whole Hundred Years of it, which must have been a relief to the French. It is not recorded whether his personal chapel in the castle made any difference to outcomes thereafter. Jacob Rees-Mogg, take note.

Opposite the Castle was The Castle Inn, which some lucky landlord must have named in the hope that someone would put up a castle. What were the chances of that, eh? Here we spent another night, again, warmly welcomed. It’s a lovely pub with a long lawn leading down to a river, where children played and families congregated in the summer sunshine to eat and drink and socialise.

That night, we were woken by the most extraordinary thunderstorm. It went on for hours, the thunder rolling on and on to create a constant rumble, and the lightning striking so often it felt like we were in daylight, and I wondered if I had been perhaps a little too disrespectful of Dallingridge in my private thoughts that afternoon. Then I reckoned it was probably the ghosts of all those murdered French and English peasants, and I thought I had probably underdone it.

From Bodiam the following morning, we went to Great Dixter house – a gorgeously combined mixture of 14th century farmhouse, 16th Century Yeoman’s Hall and Lutyens-designed modern house that creates the most beautiful scene, surrounded as it is by perfect gardens, the whole being set in yet more stunningly beautiful countryside. The patriarch who bought the place and made it his project, I learned, made his money in the first flush of sophisticated Victorian advertising, in which the modern nature of publicity, branding and mass-produced consumer goods meant worldwide sales to a public grateful for the reliable and the familiar. This meant he could retire at the age of 42. Which puts a new spin on the phrase “it pays to advertise.”

From there, we headed to Battle, which was decked out in red, white and blue bunting, and there were yet more Union Flags in people’s gardens. We stayed the night at this quintessential English town and drank French Merlot at a Trattoria, looking down the High Street at this place so central to mystical English identity. It was when I realised all those Union Flags had been bought on the proceeds of businesses in a town whose whole raison d’etre was to celebrate being invaded by the French, that I profoundly thought: wtf?

On again the next morning to Cuckmere, past the Long Man at Wilmington, supposed to be either neolithic, Celto-Roman, Saxon or modern, depending on which archaeologist is talking. Like so many other villages in East Sussex, the streets were cosy and warm and picturesque. 

They were also flaggy. Don’t get me wrong. I get it. You’re proud of this part of the country. It’s stunning. It’s genuinely something to be proud of. But this part of the country is not represented by a Union Flag (convenient political concoction born of debt and oppression) or a Cross of St George (dodgy myth about a Turkish knight). No, what really makes it distinctive is the hop fields and the oast houses with their white cowls used to dry the hops one tastes in English ales – hops that were originally Dutch imports. Even the word clapboard comes from the German root klappen – meaning to split. And all those flags – they are probably made in China. But hey. I get it. 

Then, down to the Birling Gap via Cuckmere, to walk along the coast and see the Seven Sisters, the great white cliffs. They reminded me of the cliffs at Dover, associated with all that safe, reassuring, misty-eyed patriotism, though I thought they could just as easily stand for upheaval, seeing as they are massive uplifted seabeds dotted with flints that were once sponges, long before flags were even thought of.

Next, over to Eastbourne to meet with a friend. And then, back to the Cuckmere Inn, where we stayed in the car park and – after a bite to eat and several pints of fine English ale – we walked down to the sea, waded the river and walked up by the meandering elegance of the snaking Cuckmere.

It was there, as the sun set and the birds made such a noise in the fields and the skies, and the cows lowed, and the gulls cried, I felt such a sense of sudden quiet and eternity and such a passion stirring inside me, that I too felt proud and awed to be, though it be for only a short time, a citizen of this world.

The next day we came home. And I have to say, East Sussex is beautiful. Despite those darn flags.

“We’re proud of England, see our flags flutter!
You can just feel the history: In High Weald’s
fossil-rich chalk downs, in bells of butter-
cups, clapboard houses and hanging hopfields.
Look! That oast house dried hops brought by the Dutch;
this stronghold, French-gold funded, reeks with stench
of war. That Battle street, decked in so much
colour, celebrates defeat by the French.
We welcome you coz we know who we are –
we Sussex English, comfy in our skins,
claim this land as ours. Though you come from far –
our distant ancestors saw it all begin.”
And Seven old Sisters don’t even shrug
at fleeting flags, knights, and Union Jack mugs.

Stream of life – a piece of spontaneous writing

Stream of life:

This is the great stream of life, we are in. Wait. Stop. Listen. Notice the movement on your skin, the slightest of shifts as the sensory cells activate and fire off, reporting all that is going on in your life. It washes over you, washes through and drags you along in its current. There is nothing you can do but submit to it. It loves you, it is you, it is the whole universe, and it knows everything and nothing about you and your thoughts and your hopes and your fears. The stream of life is intimately you, and abstractly both uninterested and disinterested in your life, you future, your past, your pains, your joys, your woes, your smiles and your tears. It is greater than you and you are so much greater than the you that you think you are. The stream washes on. Wait! Stop! Do you hear that sound? It is the laughter of the water, washing all around you.

After You’ve Gone – What Next After The Three Belles and Sing Sing Sing?

The Three Belles - fond memories...

A forlorn sight meets the eyes of the Pompeyite out for a walk on Southsea Common a few days after the circus leaves town.

A circle of yellowed grass and a few handfuls of sawdust are all that tell of the wonders that paraded, galloped, shimmered and sparkled there only days before beneath the Big Top. Standing at the ring’s centre, the roars of laughter, the gasps of amazement, bursts of applause and shouts of joy are silent; the only movement a few dried stalks in the sea breeze.

I know that departed circus feeling so well. It’s 3.45 in the morning after The Three Belles put on their show Sing Sing Sing at the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth and my mind is still buzzing with the triumphs of the night, still blaring in the silence that has now come.

The Three Belles - fond memories...
The Three Belles – fond memories…

Fast forward two years, with a ton of other writing jobs and Belles adventures in between. The latest step in developing their original idea came in a very short time – just 6 brief weeks. In mid-December, I’d immersed myself in reading a full history of World War 2, then poring over eyewitness accounts of the Blitz and watching hours and hours of documentaries and war films. After that, we had a meeting at my house in which I presented to them a storyline for a completely revamped show. The idea was to take  elements from previous shows we’d worked on, add more depth of characterisation and more character interaction so that we could unfold a story of humour, tragedy, pathos and drama in a setting of beautiful music.

The new script proper was started on 2nd January by all of us to an agreed plan, completed on the 18th and rehearsed relentlessly for the next two weeks. I by no means wrote it all – it was a genuinely shared project with emails flying between us in a frenzy of writing activity.  We steered it along together, creating, nipping and tucking as we went, quietly focused on what we wanted, changing lines, adding scenes and working collaboratively in a way that was completely new for me.

Before then I had virtually stalked The Three Belles! I had caught them in live shows whenever I could so I could learn the rhythms of their natural speech and the qualities, pitches and timbres of their spoken voices.  Now, writing for their characters alongside them and seeing them deliver the lines we had written was utterly fascinating. There were times I got it wrong. There were times when their inventiveness amazed me. And there were times when it just felt absolutely right that a scene should be such a shape, or have such an outcome.

Those rehearsals were intensive and they were fun. The sheer hard work and professionalism of The Three Belles and of William Keel-Stocker left me feeling delighted just to know them.

Then came performance night.

There is a moment before a show when there are just hours to go and a writer has nothing left to do except sit there, hold his breath and cross his fingers while the actors and stage crew work it all out. Would it work?  Would it all come together? I felt sick with not knowing if we’d got it right. Had I got the rhythm of the scenes right, did the narrative arcs work? Would the audience like it?

The answer was a very big YES. The cast were magnificent. From the opening in which Will introduced the Belles – right the way through to the roar of the crowd at the end, the show had a vibrancy and joy that lifted people up.  It was a fantastic night.

Now I wonder what I’m going to do next? I’ve lived and breathed The Three Belles’ world for the last 6 weeks: reading, writing, sleeping, dreaming, waking and creating.

My mind’s a yellowed circle of grass. I wonder what new tent will pitch up here? What new show? What characters will dance before me in the Big Top of my mind’s eye?

I don’t know. All I know for now is that this was a fabulous night and the hard work was so very, very worth it.

As for the next project… Well. We shall see!

Sing Sing Sing with The Three Belles – Nearly Sold Out – Rehearsal Piccies…

Another fascinating day with The Three Belles, Joe Bishop and Will Keel-Stocker today. Full rehearsal this time, with props and full stage layout.  The next time we work this, it will be at The New Theatre Royal in rehearsals on Saturday.

Here are some shots I snapped today:

Gail Prepares for the worst....
Gail Prepares for the worst….


Will and Anneka Dance Dance Dance while Izzie looks on.
Will and Anneka Dance Dance Dance while Izzie looks on.

It has been quite an experience. I’ve never written like this before – in a pragmatic and collaborative way, and it opens up whole new possibilities.  Fascinating stuff.

My thoughts?

How hard everyone has worked!  From Chloe, the sound and lights woman closely annotating the script, through the Belles learning lines, working the staging, perfecting their characters and applying themselves to selling tickets – through Joe Bishop working up his character, and how he has managed to arrange a surprise guest appearance, to Will Keel-Stocker making the music happen, arranging the scores and in between times learning his lines, too.  I suppose I have worked on it, too, but this has been such a positive experience it hasn’t felt like work.

Latest news is the Dress Circle is sold out, the stalls are nearly full and the theatre has now opened the Upper Circle.

You can get your tickets for Sing Sing Sing from the New Theatre Royal, here.  The show will be on Saturday 2nd February, at 7.30 pm.

The Three Belles – Sing Sing Sing Script Sign-off!

So, with two weeks to work it up, The Three Belles and I signed off the new incarnation of “Sing Sing Sing” on Sunday!

The Greenwich Court Wrens at play...
The Greenwich Court Wrens at play…

This came during a weekend which included a fantastic Saturday night at The King Street Tavern, where the Belles did their magic to a packed, raucous house.

I’d had my head down on the script all day, ironing out minor problems and reworking some of the  scenes from early morning, then turned up (flagging a little from not seeing the light of day!) at the pub to have it reconfirmed why I love working with these women. Brilliant is the word.

Back home, rather unsteady on my feet after a good few beers, then a quick review of the script with Anneka on Sunday morning  – and boom – done.  Great feeling sending it off, getting their minor edits back and then it was finished.

Things get lively...
Things get lively…

It’s a funny old thing. The work has been intense in a short time on this script and it leaves a bit of a hole for me to fill. That thing that happens when suddenly the close intense thinking you were doing comes to a halt. But then, I’m excited about  seeing it come to life.

Rehearsals, here we come!

Sing Sing Sing! will be performed on 2nd February 2013 at The New Theatre Royal. Click here to book now!

The Three Belles Rehearsals – A Few Thoughts

I had a fascinating day yesterday.

If you don’t know, I’ve been working with The Three Belles, a vintage singing trio, to develop storylines for Sing Sing Sing! a stage show to be performed at The New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth on February 2nd, 2013.

I came back from the rehearsal yesterday in which The Belles, Joe Bishop, Chloe Seddon (the fourth Belle) and I started to work through the script, find the weakspots and bring out its strengths.

The Three Belles - fond memories...
The Three Belles – Sing Sing Sing

The whole process of script creation has been a revelation for me.  I’ve always been used to working alone, but the time pressure on creating the script meant that the Belles wrote many of the scenes to a storyline I initially developed.

I was out of my comfort zone when this way of working was suggested.  I thought: “Boy, how will we be able to control the story arcs?  How can we direct the nuances between the characters with four different minds on it?  How do we maintain consistency?”

Then Anneka rolled up her sleeves and started turning out her scenes.  It was a genuine surprise to me – how easy it was to work in this way.

Then Sally and Issie did the same with their scenes, and I learned loads about how they approach their creativity.  Each Belle has her strengths.

Anneka is smart and quick – with a clear idea about what she wants from a scene.  She also is good at thinking structurally, and so is aware of how a scene moves a story on.  She is a natural strategist, I think.

Sally has this comic knack and an ability to really make a scene live. I believe there’s a whole load more to come from that fast-moving brain.

Issie was very aware of what she wanted from her character, and since I had already written most of her scenes, she was extremely clear about where the weaknesses were in what I’d written for her, and gave me clear guidance about it.

And so, in about a week, we pulled a script together.

Yesterday was the first rehearsal.  It was really positive.  We all pitched in, giving suggestions on direction, staging and cuts, etc.

There was a moment in the rehearsal room when I saw a different life stretch away behind me. What, I wondered, would have happened had I gone to Uni and studied the arts instead of English Lit and Philosophy?

The answer came back loud and clear.  To be honest, it would have been a disaster. I was so immature at Uni. Now is the right time to be doing this.

I loved hearing what the Belles and Joe had to say about the script. It’s all  part of a creative journey. The thing is, I trust the Belles. No egoes.  We just get on with it.

My final reflection is this: I came away with a feeling I haven’t felt for a long time. Satisfaction. Real deep satisfaction at doing something I absolutely love.

Well, that’s it for now. I have a script to work on!